Fighters competing at UFC 199 lined a hallway inside The Forum in Los Angeles last week. The event was part of the organization's fight-week festivities, a media day designed to promote the upcoming card.
The conversations ranged from how the fighters felt they matched up with their upcoming opponents to the new weigh-in procedure installed by the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC).
One topic the athletes didn't seem to have a very good grasp on, though, was boxing's Muhammad Ali Act. Last month, a bill was introduced to Congress by Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) that would extend the Ali Act to mixed martial arts. Mullin is a former MMA fighter himself.
Yet, not a single fighter was very familiar with the Ali Act and its use. Most knew the name and heard rumblings about the bill, but none could pinpoint what it has done in boxing or how it could potentially affect him or her in the future.
After hearing some of the Ali Act's terms explained to him, UFC bantamweight Alex Caceres quipped, "Sounds like freedom."
There is much division on how the Ali Act could be applied to MMA and if it would actually be a positive thing for the sport. Mullin believes fighters have been getting the short end of the stick in mixed martial arts and the Ali Act was passed in 2000 for boxing to protect fighters. He believes MMA fighters need to have their own safeguards.
"I think the UFC has done a phenomenal job at promoting the sport," Mullin told MMA Fighting. "They've done a horrible job at taking care of the fighters, though."
The UFC obviously would -- and has -- disputed that. This week, the promotion hired a Washington, D.C., firm to lobby Congress against the extension of the Ali Act to MMA. The UFC's position has been consistent on this. In 2007, the organization retained another lobbying firm to combat a similar bill put forth by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that eventually failed.
UFC COO Lawrence Epstein told ESPN.com that he and other UFC executives met with Mullin on two occasions and they came away dismayed with the Congressman's thoughts on fighter safety.
"I was especially disappointed with his lack of concern for athletes' health and safety -- an issue that we, at UFC, consider our top priority," Epstein said. "Moreover, we continue to believe the federal government would have no productive role in regulating MMA promotions or competitions. Already, states regulate each bout and MMA athletes are well compensated and treated fairly, which is one of the reasons the sport is the fastest growing in the world."
So what exactly does the Ali Act do and where does this dichotomy come from?
Well, perhaps the biggest impact is that promoters must open up their books to fighters and divulge the revenue they earn from events, that way fighters know exactly how much they are worth. The UFC is a private company and loathe to reveal those numbers to anyone.
In boxing, fighters get far more of a percentage of revenue than they do in MMA. The UFC would argue here that it is much more than just a fight promotion, but also a media conglomerate that orchestrates just about everything around a fight card, including producing the events, etc. The UFC and a boxing promotion like Top Rank, for instance, are not necessarily equal.
The Ali Act also limits the amount of time promoters can bind fighters to in a contract, especially if it is deemed "coercive." Contract provisions -- like a champions clause, for instance -- can only last up to a year. Also, the separation of fighter manager and promoter is supposed to be more distinct and clear.
On the non-financial front, the Ali Act stipulates that championship belts and rankings are organized by a third-party sanctioning body. If the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act is passed, that responsibility would fall first on the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC).
"They need to be in there so that we do have a professional ranking system, so people don't just go into the cage after a fight and start calling out people and just because they've got a loud mouth [they get a title shot]," Mullin said. "Just because they're great at self-promoting and they're great for ticket sales doesn't mean that they can jump from ranked fifth to all of a sudden having a title fight and No. 2 and No. 3 and No. 4 gets passed over. And we see that over and over and over again."
There are certainly aspects of the Ali Act that fighters will love, but it's unclear how it will affect UFC Fight Pass prelim openers and the like. Boxing cards are notoriously top heavy, while UFC cards, for the most part, have far more potential draws scattered about. There are times when the FS1 main event athletes "sell" better than some on the main card. How would that money be divvied up? There's a lot more to hash out in MMA.
As far as a third-party ranking system and title shots being determined by the ABC or another body, the immediate fear from fans will be that MMA will become too much like boxing -- top fighters divided by promotion with the best possible fights out of reach for years at a time due to negotiating disputes.
"[Boxing rankings] are susceptible to manipulation, have deprived boxers of fair opportunities for advancement, and have undermined public confidence in the integrity of the sport," Epstein said.
Then there's the question of enforcement. As in, there hasn't really been any in boxing. Al Haymon is well known as the manager for fighters like Floyd Mayweather, Jr., and he also promotes Premier Boxing Champions. The Ali Act seems to be skirted in this case by paperwork logistics -- he's just an advisor (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) -- and while other promoters have called him out on it, nothing has stuck.
There aren't many who would dispute that MMA fighters deserve more money. They do. And Mullin certainly has his heart in the right place. He was 3-0 as a pro fighter in 2006 and 2007 and trained fighters up until 2011. Mullin said he just had elbow surgery recently to repair injuries from his past career.
"We all know this going into it and it was fun, it was exciting," Mullin said. "But if it's going to be a professional business, then the professional athletes need to be on an even playing field with the promoters out there. And if it's going to be like a league, then it needs to be organized like a league."
Changes are needed. No doubt about that. This sport is only a little more than 20 years old. Baseball didn't look anything like it does now just two decades into its existence.
Maybe, though, a direct application of the Ali Act is not the best answer. MMA, after all, is its own sport. It should have its own bill protecting fighters, too.